Re: Modifying the Body (Was Mutilations, Tattos, etc.)

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 00:44:02 +0900

>>In thinking about BMODs, I start with the observation that everything we
>>have talked about falls on a range from permanent and irreversible
>>(circumcision, for example; I know of no way to reverse the operation) to
>>transient and easily changed (choosing a new hat or lipstick
>>color).Somewhere toward the middle of the range is a boundary between
>>things that are done *to* the body (changing the body itself) and things
>>done *on* the body (without changing the body itself). There is also a
>>class of practices that *augment* the natural body (fitness, regimens,
>>body-building, plastic surgery); though how these fit into the overall
>>picture is still far from clear to me.
>>"Tattoo" and "fashion" have, for me, been prototypes of things done *to*
>>and things done *on* the body respectively. My intuition is that the former
>>assert what are, at least, intended to be permanent identities; the latter
>>assert positions in on-going status games. I know that historically
>>attempts have been made to freeze the positions in question, through
>>sumptuary laws; but these have rarely been enforcable. I also know that
>>modern mass culture is market driven, addicted to innovation, and ready to
>>cannibalize any and all practices for temporary shock value. Someone who
>>gets a tattoo today may intend to make a strong statement about identity,
>>but also know that (thanks, Rosemary Gianno!) there are tattoo removal
>>services listed in the Yellow Pages. In this respect they are not unlike
>>someone who takes wedding vows, but also recognize [sic] that divorce is a
>>possibility. Both are in very different situations from members of
>>traditional communities where removing the tatto is, perhaps like
>>divorce, > >unthinkable.[slightly modified]
>>[More later, gotta run now]
>These speculations are based on (1) observations. To develop or confirm or
>reject them we need (2) to hear what those who go in for BMODs have to say
>about their motives. We need to remember, however, that what they say is
>*data* and may or may not constitute a sufficient *explanation*. We may,
>as we listen, notice behavior or elements of context that support other
>explanations. As psychotherapists, political philosophers, police
>detectives and anthropologists have all observed, it is not at all
>uncommon for people to act in ways that contradict what they say or to be
>unaware of environmental factors affecting what they say and do.To assess
>the value of what they are saying we need to learn more about (3) the
>contexts in which they are speaking.
>I will note, too, for the record that I am not at all satisfied with the
>simple claim that BMODs have something to do with asserting identities. As
>Michael Schudson (in _Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion_, p. 157) notes
>in relation to consumer goods, "It will not do to hang everything on on
>this 'identity' argument by itself. It explains too much, I think, and
>therefore too little. It is exactly the kind of argument by sociologists
>that rightly raises the hackles of historians. It is notoriously difficult
>to make such an argument historically specific." There speaks a man with
>uncommon good sense. Claims about "identities" are at best starting points
>for further analysis. Shall we proceed?

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo